You’ve Heard of Oscar Bait. 2022 Is the Year of Emmy Bait

2022 Emmy nominations are out, and as you might have noticed, this year’s group feels even more random than usual. Was Sebastian Stan’s Tommy Lee impression more deserving of the lead actor in a limited series nomination than Samuel L. Jackson’s sensitive portrayal of a man with dementia in The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey? Adam Scott, John Turturro, Christopher Walken, and Patricia Arquette were great in Severance—which richly deserved its drama series nod—but what about Britt Lower, who was riveting as strong-willed new hire Helly R.? In a year that included The Girl From Plainville, Station Eleven, The Staircase, and Maid, why did inferior titles like Pam & Tommy, Inventing Anna, and the abysmal Dopesick dominate the limited series category? Do we have to keep nominating mega-popular, past-their-prime shows, from Stranger Things to The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel to Ozark, when there are so many strong alternatives?

You've Heard of Oscar Bait. 2022 Is the Year of Emmy Bait

To some extent, these seemingly arbitrary nominations are inevitable in a TV landscape that just keeps expanding; FX Research counted a record high of 559 scripted series in 2021. But they also reflect where we are in the so-called streaming wars, as the platforms that have launched in the past few years—HBO Max, Disney+, Apple TV+, Paramount+, Peacock, and more—vie to create the kind of must-see series that attract influxes of subscribers, while first-generation streamers Hulu, Amazon, and the recently embattled Netflix tweak their original content mixes to better compete in a newly oversaturated market. The upshot is a whole lot of splashy, award-seeking shows, backed by the expensive For Your Consideration ad campaigns that have seemed especially ubiquitous this season. You’ve heard of Oscar bait. This is Emmy bait.

Emmy bait is the prestige TV of decades past on steroids, developed and released with a strategic intentionality borrowed from movie-awards season. These shows tend to be literary adaptations, period pieces, or dramatizations based on real events. An emphasis on relevant social issues is de rigueur. While The Sopranos and Mad Men and Game of Thrones made stars of their actors, Emmy bait stacks its casts with established A-listers in a way that has only been possible on the small screen for the past decade or so. Big Little Lies might have set the Emmy-bait template. Based on a Liane Moriarty novel, the show tackled spousal abuse and rape, with a cast featuring Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz and, in season 2, Meryl Streep. It earned 21 Emmy nominations and eight wins.

Like Oscar bait, which evicts superheroes from cinemas between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, Emmy bait is concentrated in the month or two before each year’s eligibility window closes, at the end of May. (Remember all those buzzy docudramas that dropped this spring?) With Netflix seemingly focused on growing its international audience—a strategy that did yield one surprise smash turned awards juggernaut in drama series contender Squid Game—other platforms have led the trend. Apple gave us Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway in WeWork postmortem WeCrashed, Minari Oscar winner Youn Yuh-jung in a lavish recreation of Min Jin Lee’s historical epic Pachinko, and an adaptation of Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls starring Elisabeth Moss. Between HBO and HBO Max, we got John C. Reilly in the ’80s Lakers romp Winning Time, The Wire creator David Simon’s return to policing in Baltimore with We Own This City, and Colin Firth, Toni Collette, and Juliette Binoche in a drama based on the influential true-crime docuseries The Staircase.

While HBO and HBO Max made an incredibly strong showing this morning, with 140 nominations, and Apple punched above its weight thanks to multiple nominations for Ted Lasso and Severance, all of the above Emmy-bait titles were shut out of the major categories. Peacock and Paramount+ were barely recognized for their more modest attempts to produce awards fodder this spring, with the too-niche journey into L.A. lore Angelyne and the poorly executed Godfather docudrama The Offer, respectively. All of which goes to show that Emmy bait is not necessarily a lock for an Emmy; it simply would have sounded like a solid awards contender when pitched to network executives. Consider The First Lady, which only managed to get nods for hair, makeup, and costumes. Critics hated it, ratings were poor, and viewers on Twitter made a miscast Viola Davis’ exaggerated performance as Michelle Obama into a meme. But Showtime likely greenlit the project, in part, because it saw awards potential in casting Davis, Sharon Stone, and Gillian Anderson in a period drama about three beloved FLOTUSes.

Hulu has gone hardest of all on the Emmy-bait front. Its spring slate featured The Dropout (Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes), Pam & Tommy (Lily James and Sebastian Stan as Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, reenacting the sex-tape saga), Candy (Jessica Biel and Melanie Lynskey in a true-crime murder mystery), and The Girl From Plainville (Elle Fanning and Chloe Sevigny in a drama based on the infamous texting suicide case). The service is also home to FX-branded, streaming-exclusive series like April’s Under the Banner of Heaven, which cast Andrew Garfield as a Mormon detective in an adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s nonfiction book. As a result, with rare Emmy-bait comedy Only Murders in the Building making an especially strong showing, Hulu cleaned up in today’s nominations—even if its weaker miniseries, like Pam & Tommy and fall’s opioid-crisis docudrama Dopesick, outshone great ones like Plainville.

Disney+ does not, as a rule, make Emmy bait, in part because its parent company owns Hulu and FX, but also because it doesn’t have to. The service’s audience of franchise fans and Disney-Pixar kids is already enormous, loyal, and doesn’t care much about awards (though it does tend to dominate the technical categories, as Loki, Moon Knight, and others did this time around). Amazon’s Maisel famously embodied everything the typical awards voter cherishes: a mid-20th-century setting, a showbiz plot, a beloved small-screen voice in Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino. Which is probably why it keeps getting nominated. But recent years have seen the service shift focus towards genre spectacles like The Wheel of Time and Out of Range; its superhero riff The Boys actually did score a drama-series nomination in 2021.

The rise of Emmy bait is far from the worst trend in TV. After all, some of these cannily packaged shows are actually good, and the ones that aren’t usually feature at least one performance worth watching. It’s been nice to see some counterprogramming—namely, grounded programming meant for adult audiences—to the recent, Disney-led onslaught of capes, spaceships, and overextended franchises on TV. The problem is that Emmy bait, like Oscar bait, often positions itself as high art when really it’s preachy, clumsily written, and reliant on stunt casting that distracts from the story it’s supposedly taking so seriously.

When the actual Emmy nominations roll around, that means categories already cluttered with populist picks like Stranger Things and Ted Lasso are often further padded with shows that sound great on paper but are actually quite bad: Dopesick, Impeachment: American Crime Story, The Morning Show. Sure, a handful of exceptional breakouts, from Succession and The White Lotus to Severance and Yellowjackets, get the recognition they’re due. But what about all the smaller, weirder series that could’ve used some shine? In 2022, that group includes Reservation Dogs, We Are Lady Parts, Somebody Somewhere, Sort Of, Better Things, Made for Love, Ptolemy Grey, Search Party—and that’s just off the top of my head. Emmy bait isn’t competing for budgets and viewers and airtime with the franchise behemoths of the streaming era. In an overcrowded market where awards can help compensate for a small audience, it’s the fate of these scrappier shows that hangs in the balance.

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